As we reflect on the 50 years since President Johnson waged a “War on Poverty,” it is important to also examine our public policy response to the more recent economic downturn that pushed many more Americans into poverty. The historic job loss of the Great Recession created a hardship deeper and more widespread than any previous modern recession, and recalled for many the Great Depression.
Yet policymakers’ response to growing poverty and countless struggling families across the U.S. was largely opposite that of the lessons learned from previous downturns. Instead of pursuing robust stimulus spending to support struggling families or supporting job creation directly, policymakers opted for austerity.
Austerity is largely a term used to refer to European responses to the Great Recession but the American response took much the same tact. Policymakers dismantled investments in tools that have proven they can ameliorate families’ struggles for their most basic needs and maintain economic activity while the private sector recovers. Austerity came to the United States in the form of lower-than-needed stimulus spending and spending cuts. Most recently, sequestration reduced government spending dramatically at a time when demand for services is high and the private sector has only reluctantly created jobs.